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“Three Caballeros” review by Wolcott Gibbs

Wolcott Gibbs was the the drama critic of The New Yorker for many years, but he also wrote about other sorts of stuff, such as this smart take on The Three Caballeros. A lot more of Gibbs’ writing can be found in the new collection Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker. There’s also a recent piece about Gibbs written by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal that sheds light on his quirky personality.

Three Caballeros review by Wolcott Gibbs

  • Bart

    Like it or not, “The Three Caballeros” was authentically cartoony, a trait that Disney cartoons utterly lost in the years after it was released. Disney’s stuff would never again match those levels of sheer non-literal cinematic surrealism. Contrary to this critic’s parting verbal wisecrack, the movie really did do something for American-South American relations: at the very least it made Walt Disney, who made a South American personal appearance for the premiere, insanely popular. Old timers in Brazil still talk about the day that Walt came to town.

  • Scarabim

    Yeah, horny Donald is a bit much in that movie. I guess it was done to emphasize the beauty of diversity and South American culture or…something…

    Of course Looney Tunes did stuff like that too. Just to be fair.

    • Rajesh

      I’m okay with cartoons lusting after real women. Real women are hot.

  • Mousketeer

    I actually agree with that whole review.

  • Harry T.

    I nearly peed my pants laughing at that! And, of course, it’s 100% on the money. Thanks for posting!

  • What a read! Thanks for this post. As often as we remember Walt as a living legend, it’s almost refreshing to see that in his time he was met with a heaping helping of criticism as well.

  • cbat628

    I have got to read more of this man’s stuff! He criticizes the film and its ideas with such wit, it’s hard not to admire.

    While I still enjoy the film, I have to agree that the review is spot on with a lot of its aspects, especially some of the more surreal/adult examples. Oddly enough, it is for some of these very aspects why enjoy it – call it a guilty pleasure.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for posting this Amid!

  • tedzey

    I find it odd that both Doug Walker and this critic have harped on Donald trying to boink the live action dancer. Often people tell me my mind is in the gutter, but it feels like they’re trying too hard to make that distinction. It’s isn’t “Cool World,” it’s Disney! There was at least a level of class in the film, “The Three Caballeros.”

    • Matthew K Sharp

      To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “His mind may be in the gutter, but he’s looking at the stars”.

      The review is, of course, mostly on target. (I assume that when Gibbs says the photographed scenery is vulgar he means “common” rather than “filthy” – so much for the USA being a classless society.) But I get the impression that the whole point of Three Caballeros was excess; and as the saying goes, nothing exceeds like it!

  • The Gee

    It is a funny review with pointed jabs.

    But, in my opinion, he was looking too closely and at the wrong things. A lot of that cartoon is about cutting loose and being playful. Actually, a lot of live action films which preceded it and were made around that time were as fanciful. They may not have had the latitude that animated features had but that’s where Disney gets points for trying different types of animated features, and featurettes.

    Anyway, it was a ribald review which had me holding my sides to contain myself.

    That said, Gibbs would have freaked on Howard the Duck.

  • Bart

    This review was written just about the time that the critical take on Walt Disney began to go sour. Pre WWII Walt was equated with Chaplin as a filmic genius. In later years, the critical consensus was that he was no more than a very successful capitalist entrepreneur.

  • uncle wayne

    Jeeeeeeee-ZAMM! This man needs to stay the f HOME! (I don’t care if this IZ 55 years old!)

  • Ron

    I’m curious if there were any rebuttals to this at the time it was written, in the form of letters to the editor or something?

    I remember reading an article by Ray Bradbury written several years after this, coming to Walt Disney’s defense against a similarly written criticism of what was then the newly opened Disneyland.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there were something similar out there in response to this article.

  • It’s funny to me that Gibbs is more infatuated by the films suggestive nature rather than its’ lack of narrative structure. He seems to be reviewing the film by a few of its’ parts rather than the whole. It’s also amazing that Gibbs criticizes Disney for using surreal imagery (‘Bogus Mysticism’)in Fantasia, but then praises Disney for incorporating it into Caballeros by compressing Donald into surreal ‘Aztec designs’.
    The point of the movie was to give the American public, a soft sell of South American culture through Disney entertainment, and it accomplished this very well.
    It wasn’t meant to play to the intellectual.

    I happen to think that Caballeros is a visual bonanza, full of fun and innovative ideas. I’ve always found this film to be very enjoyable, although it is missing a solid storyline.
    But who cares? It has some very funny moments and amazing animated sequences that move at a pretty good clip. It’s a solid piece of entertainment that plays like an irresistible extended music video.
    It’s too bad that Gibbs was too much of a stuffed shirt to enjoy the idea that Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito The Rooster are constantly getting worked up over live action girls. Apparently, he couldn’t see the humor in the absurdity of that situation.

  • It’s funny, all the stuff the critic hates about it I like.

    “The Three Caballeros” is such a strange, weird film that you sort of have to respect it. There’s never been a movie quite like it before or since.

  • Three Caballeros is basically a feature length cartoon in every sense of the word–it’s Ward Kimball off his leash. If that critic is taking snipes at it for what it is, and look too deeply into something that was never meant to be taken seriously (i.e. Donald’s lusting after real women) then he missed the forest for the trees.

    Regardless, Three Cabarellos is still one of my favorite Disney films besides Snow White and Bambi, and no lack of “proper” narrative will ruin my love for it.

  • Scarabim

    You know, I just remembered…some Disney artist (Grim Natwick, perhaps?) actually did a sketch of Leda and the Duck (Donald). I remember seeing something like that in a book about Disney history. I can remember what was in the picture – a tastefully reclining semi-nude lady, drawn in a classical style, gesturing languidly to an also (tastefully) nude Donald Duck, who’s twisting his hat in his hands and looking quite bewildered. It was cute as heck. Wish I could remember what book it was in…

    • Kay Kirscht

      Ah, yes – “Leda and the Duck” is a sketch – don’t know the artist, but it’s adorable. It’s found in the huge, coffee-table Disney history book that came out in the mid-70s.

  • DB

    Eh, just snooty 1940-era style snark for snark’s sake (Anthony Lane basically does the same thing today).

    I am hardly a fan of Three Caballeros, from what I can vaguely remember of it, its quite incoherent and as could be expected in that era, trades on sexist and racist stereotypes (actually, in this film the racism seemed a lot more toned down than in some other Disney films). Of course, no mainstream critic in 1945 could be expected to give a damn about racism or sexism.

    But I find it hard to get worked up about beastiality considering how common it is in animation (more often animals of different species gettin’ it on but then you have Bosco and Betty Boop….). From what I recall there was some great design in some Caballeros segments (as well a some not so great), and of course much great character animation.

    Don’t remember the allegedly ‘mystical’ elements in the film, nor for that matter any specific ‘mysticism’ in Fantasia either other than various odes to faries, greek mythology, magic wizards, darwin and christianity.

  • Hooper

    Scarabim, it was in “The Art of Walt Disney”.

  • I remember those drawings, Scarabim. Fine art classics, but with the Duck.

    At least some of them are in this book:

  • Donald Duck chasing girls (mortal, pleasantly rounded, or otherwise)… shocking.

  • I have to say I’m surprised to see some people here agreeing with this review (quotes from which I’ve been familiar with for some time thanks to Charles Solomon and a few others’ writings). This guy comes off as a ridiculous stuffed shirt who obsesses and overthinks things that are simply meant to be funny. I would have thought people would have laughed his discomfort with implied bestiality—-it’s surprising to me that this is shared by some people here, as well as agreements over the “vulgarity” of the fantasy sequences. I mean…what?

    It’s hard for me to tell where this article was coming from. I know, as someone else pointed out above, that this was right around the time that Walt Disney’s critical reputation started to slide downhill into a pit that it never came back from, a real decline from his 1930s peak of being considered a cinematic visionary by the intellegentsia of the day. This guy seems to be patting Disney on the head and saying, “Come come, little man, just stick to showing funny antics and go run along,” which I don’t quite understand in light of the critics’ highfalutin’ praise just a few years earlier.

  • This text is dated as much as the film’s aesthetics. But the film still works on the big screen today, partly because some sequences are really that good, and partly because lots of stuff looks pretty cheesy today – because it takes stuff seriously we would call kitschy or campy today. The criticism, however, comes from somebody who doesn’t seem to “get” animation at all, demanding realism in absurd places but not everywhere.

    But “a very disagreeable little bird who wrecks trains for his private amusement” sounds like the essence of the perfect cartoon character, and just for this beautiful description of the Aracuan this text may remain.

  • Interesting review: I also doubt the touristic value of the film (visit South America, for its beautiful girls!), but in my opinion ‘The Three Caballeros’ greatest flaw is its lack of narrative structure.

    However the zany surrealism (which forms the film’s highlight) is something to always come back for.

    Anyway, here’s my own review of the film:

  • The main problem I have with the “Leda and the Swan”/Donald-lusting-after-girls analogy, is that the Swan is Zeus is disguise, one of the many times in mythology when Zeus planted his seed in a woman. Gibbs’ article has its good points, but Donald is not a sex-starved god, just a tourist wanting to get some…uh…tail.

  • tgentry

    It’s not my favorite, but I think it’s actually pretty fun. Great art direction and music. My five year old occasionally requests a watch, so it couldn’t be all bad.

  • Mark Sonntag

    It’s a fun movie and quite abstract in it’s approach. It’s never going to be everybody’s cup of tea. You’ll never see Disney/PIXAR take a shot at something odd and out of the blue these days.

  • Joe

    Wolcott doth protest too much, methinks.

  • Marbles, I completely agree with you. The film is fun and was clearly intended to not take itself seriously. The writer was obviously a pretentious prude who’s narrow mind didn’t allow commercial artists to bend beyond the lines. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a closet pervert who in public was afraid to show his enjoyment of sexy dancing women. His critique of Fantasia’s abstract artistic expression is reinforcement that he didn’t want cartoons to go beyond cat and mouse chases. No great plot? So what. I’d say given the history of WW2 and the big strike at the Mouse House at that time, they probably just wanted to let off some steam and make people smile! That’s entertainment.

  • John A

    The reveiwer gets his nose out of joint because Donald and company go all mooney-eyed over a few pretty girls? This was 1945, was this guy aware of some of the more lustful goings on in the cartoons made by MGM, Paramount and Warners during this same period? Walt is positively tame by comparison.

  • Dave O.

    I prefer “Three Caballeros” to “Fantasia”. “Fantasia” suffers from intentionality. Stellar craftsmanship aside, each segment in “Fantasia” tries to be grander than the last and the whole project comes off as overbaked, pretentious and sleep-inducing.

    Aesthetically, “Caballeros” has more fantasy and levity in many of its sequences. The color styling and the use of the book motif to introduce each segment is done very well. The Mary Blair “posada” illustrations are a tiny marvel, though they slow the pace of the movie down significantly as this review points out. The final 5 minutes are pure animated anarchy! I’m surprised the fact that Donald gets two firecrackers shoved up his butt in that segment wasn’t worth a mention by a reviewer who blushed at the thought of cross-species love!

    “Caballeros” is flawed for all the reasons mentioned in the review, but for me its main flaw is its disturbing imperialist agenda. The U.S. sought to dominate the Western hemisphere following WWI as well as subdue the societal unrest in Latin American countries and the film’s propagandistic aims trump everything else.

  • Mandie

    Beautiful and peppy music, weird and surreal animation, crazy bouncy colors and a lady with fruit on her head…how could you ask for more?
    The movie never, ever takes itself seriously, or pigeonholes itself into something nostalgic or sickeningly cute like other Disney toons. (Winkin Blinkin n Nod, anybody?)
    I have always loved this movie, and always will.

  • One of the greatest propaganda films ever made……..Who funded it ???????